Inkjet Printers

With the profusion of printer models available in the market, buying the right one to suit your requirements and budget is no easy task. Whether you're printing high-quality family photos, creating professional proofs for clients, or quickly churning out draft text and graphics, everyone, it seems, needs a printer.

The purpose of this buying guide is to help you decipher information about inkjet printers and make your choice an easier one.

Why choose an inkjet over a laser printer?

The first step when you purchase a printer is deciding on whether a laser or inkjet model will be more suitable for your printing needs.

Almost all basic inkjets offer the same features: one paper tray that holds 100 or 150 sheets and 10 envelopes, minimal buffer memory, and no networking option. A few vendors offer business-orientated inkjets that include higher capacities, optional paper trays, Ethernet or 802.11b (wireless) networking, and more memory.

Lasers generally have more features and options than inkjets. Monochrome lasers hold from 150 to 700 sheets, with corporate models frequently holding 600 sheets as standard; colour lasers hold from 200 to 1200 sheets. More corporate laser products include 8MB of RAM, with expansion options permitting up to four or five times that amount for queuing multiple print jobs at once. Some offer optional hard drives that you can use to save complex forms and other preprocessed images or to store passwords for confidential print jobs, and they all have standard or optional Ethernet adapters.

Another key differentiator between inkjets and their laser counterparts is the cost of consumables.

If you print a lot of text, and don't really need colour output, then in the long run a laser printer will be the cheaper and faster choice. Although the initial price for a mono laser printer may be more than an inkjet, lower running costs, coupled with the low cost of replacement consumables such as laser toner, can make owing a laser printer a more viable option in the longer term.

However, if colour is a necessity, or if you're going to be printing a lot of photos, an inkjet is most likely to be the best option. Colour laser printers exist, but prices are still high, with many sitting in the $2000 to $5000 price bracket. This may be okay for small to medium businesses which print a lot of colour brochures and advertising material (several hundred pages per month, for instance), but for residential users, colour inkjets are going to make the most economic sense.

What's an inkjet?

The concept behind inkjets will be familiar to most readers: ink gets squirted out of nozzles located within the printhead, which distribute the ink across the page as it is fed through the printer.

It's less well known, though, that the technology itself can be broken down into two common types: thermal and piezo.

Although both distribute ink in a similar fashion, the difference lies in how they transfer the ink to the page. In thermal inkjets, the nozzles located inside the printhead are heated to create a vapour bubble which forces a droplet of ink onto the paper. Due to the nature of the ink transferral method, many manufacturers refer to these types of inkjet printers as bubblejets. Manufactures producing bubblejets include HP, Canon and Lexmark.

In contrast, piezo printers squirt pressurised ink through the nozzles by charging the piezo crystal located behind the nozzles in the printhead with electricity. Piezo crystals vibrate when charged with electricity and this, in turn, pulls and then pushes the ink within the nozzle. By varying the strength of the electrical charges, the technology causes different-sized ink droplets to break away from the nozzle. Also called the vibration method, the technology was patented by Epson and is consequently used in its range of inkjet printers.

In practice, there is little difference between piezo and thermal inkjets, and long-held beliefs that piezo printers have more accuracy than thermal printers have petered out.

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